Attentions in the Dark

Evidence of a Volée of German Psychophysicians c. 1860

Recently, while contributing research to a study of “Birdish” bookmarks in the Milcom Library Collection, an associate of ESTAR(SER) made a fascinating discovery. His notice on the matter has just crossed our desk, and we reproduce it here in full:

I was asked by my colleagues in ESTAR(SER) to retrieve a single quotation from the work of Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1887) pertaining to the historicity of the Order of the Third Bird, but in searching for it I stumbled on something that may be of interest for our collective research beyond any shorter-term projects we have. To wit, I have discerned in Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) evidence of a lost practice of attention under conditions of total darkness.

Fechner cites a number of earlier authors writing on the familiar phenomenon whereby someone who stays in a dark space for an extended time comes to perceive objects in that space to which a person just arrived from the outdoor light would be completely blind. Buffon, for one, describes a prisoner who after some months in a pitch-black cell was able to observe the mice he shared it with as if they were bathed in a rich luminosity.

Fechner is guardedly interested in the work of his near-contemporary Carl Ludwig von Reichenbach (1788-1869), who in his Odisch-magnetische Briefe (1859) introduces the concept of the Od. This term is derived from the Old Norse ōðr, commonly translated as “feeling,” but also having the sense of “song” or “poetry.” Reichenbach appropriates it and Germanizes it to describe a life-force that steers the body and that can be detected emanating out of it under the right experimental conditions. This od or “odic force” is conceived as something akin to both electricity and magnetism, and to this extent is but one expression of many in the era of a broad interest, best exemplified in the work of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), in explaining the activity of living bodies in terms of fundamental physical forces that were only beginning to be understood.

What interests Fechner most in Reichenbach’s work, however, is the capacity this latter author attributes to the so-called Sensitives: people who have unusual powers due to the greater share they possess of the odic force. Reichenbach’s Sensitives, Fechner observes, “see, in total darkness, a glowing, at the poles of strong magnets of flame-like appearances of light; at the north pole they perceive blue and blue-grey, at the south pole red, red-yellow, and red-grey.” Reichenbach also maintains, Fechner notes, “that they see a glowing at the points of crystals, at the extremities of living human, animal, and plant bodies, particularly at the fingertips, in metals, sulphur, and fluids that are obtained in chemical reactions or in crystallisation, and so on. The author arrives in the end at the result,” Fechner concludes, referring to volume II of Reichenbach’s Der sensitive Mensch und sein Verhalten zum Ode (1855), “that all bodies on the earth in general give off a light in the darkness that is detectable by Sensitives, only that some do so more, and some less.”*

Who are these “Sensitives”? Intriguingly, in a footnote to the second edition of the Elemente der Psychophysik (Leipzig, 1861), Fechner comments that he has heard of a contingent of Reichenbach’s followers who describe themselves by this term, and who, Fechner believes, cultivate their sensitivity even beyond their innate capacity through what he describes as Aufmerksamkeitsübungen, i.e., exercises of attention. Fechner writes: “Thus do they sharpen their sensitivity: in total darkness they direct their eyes, all together and for a fixed period of time, towards one and the same art object, until they detect its glowing. Some of them maintain that in the perception of this glowing the sensitive observer temporarily shares in the same inner nature as the observed object.”**

Could this be evidence for the existence of a volée of the Order within the cultural nexus of the not-quite-fringe yet not fully credence-worthy German psychophysicians of the mid-19th century? Clearly, further research is required.

*“Reichenbach giebt in seinen Schriften über das sog. Od an, dass gewisse Personen, sog. Sensitiven, im vollkommenen Dunkel an den Polen starker Magnete flammenähnliche Lichterscheinungen, am Nordpole blaue und Blaugraue, am Südpole eine rothe, rothgelbe und rothgraue wahrnehmen, dass sie auch die Spitze von Krystallen, lebende menschliche, thierische und pflanzliche Körper, ganz besonders die Fingerspitzen, Metalle, Schwefel, Flüssigkeiten, die im chemischen oder Krystallisationsacte begriffen sind, u. s w. leuchten sehen. Endlich kommt der Verf. (sensit. Mensch II. S. 192) zu dem Resultate, dass alle Körper der Erde überhaupt im Dunkeln Licht, für die Sensitiven spürbar, ausgeben, die einen nur mehr, die anderen weniger” (323-24).

**“So schleifen sie ihre Empfindlichkeit: im vollkommenen Dunkel richten sie die Augen alle zusammen für eine bestimmte Zeit auf ein und dasselbe Kunstobjekt, bis sie das Leuchten davon spüren. Einige von ihnen behaupten, dass beim Beobachten dieses Leuchtens der sensitive Beobachter dasselbe innere Wesen als der beobachtete Gegenstand vorübergehend teilt.”

We agree with our associate: further research is required. Anyone inclined to pursue the topic will be interested to recall that this is not the first time occult tendencies have surfaced in the historicity of the Order. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most notably, the English antiquarian (and probable Bird) Francis Douce (1757-1834) experimented on the “attentional landscapes” putatively perceived by Welsh and Irish clairvoyants blessed with second sight; subsequently, in the early twentieth-century, a cohort of figures in and around Britain appears to have formalized Douce’s esoteric methods into a “Corona of Care” protocol, the first phase of which is “Watch the Darkness.” Could Reichenbach have been aware Douce? Could the protocol be linked to Reichenbach?

We are passing the matter on to ESTAR(SER)’s “Standing Committee on Practical Auratics” for further investigation. In the meanwhile, do not hesitate to send critical responses or promising leads to the Editor of the Communiqués.


Topographic Actions?

There has never been much evidence that orthodox associates of the Order of the Third Bird have engaged in any sustained way in “Birdish” practices of attention to natural landforms — or, indeed, to “natural” objects more generally. While a number of “divergent” tendencies (one thinks immediately of the twentieth-century Russian “Korfians,” about whom Justin E. H. Smith and others have written at some length; and on the “Oannes Scrap” and the activities of M.I. Return Maycomb in the 1820s and 30s) have arisen that do indeed perform attentional rites on the night sky, the ocean surface, horizon-lines, and various other non-canonical objects, the basic widely accepted rubric for the Practice has long been that devotees attend on “objects made to be seen.”  This seems to have been interpreted widely, and admitted also of other sensory modalities.  But the notion of “intent” has been paramount.  In this context, doing a Bird Action on a natural object (a tree, say, or ordinary rock) can been understood to raise theological questions of some depth.

Working the edge of this problem has been a preoccupation of several known volées operating in North America and Western Europe since the 1960s, and we have secondhand reports (in the W-Cache and in oral traditions) of active debates around the suitability of a bonsai tree as a “Work” in the sense acknowledged by the main line of the Avis Tertia (the preponderance of collective opinion on this was affirmative).  Another striking “boundary case” has been Robert Irwin’s epochal “String Drawing – Filtered Light” of 1976 (a delimited patch of grass in the garden of the Venice Biennial, which heralded the young Irwin’s move to the thresholds of direct sensory experience via bracketed bits of the world). There has long been a rumor that a Southern California volée performs an annual Action upon a pastiche of this work installed anew every May near Twenty-Nine Palms in Wonder Valley.  There seem to be a small number of dissenters who, in a ritualized (and apparently friendly) manner, “protest” this Action every year.  Both groups finish the day with a cookout, if these reports are to be believed.

All of this makes the present photograph of interest.  It came to light in 2015, in materials related to the estate of a Los Angeles researcher long associated with ESTAR(SER).  It would appear to represent an Action of associates of the Order working in Ohio in the mid-1920s, using a “Protocol for Topography” that has not been preserved.  Anyone in possession of information that might bear on this document is encouraged to follow up with the Editor of the Communiqués directly.

An Ancient Treatise on Attention

At the time of his death in 1961, the German classicist Werner Jaeger was widely reputed to be the greatest scholar of Aristotle’s philosophy in the modern period. His reputation was secured already with the Studien zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Metaphysik des Aristoteles of 1911, while much of his later work was dedicated to the recovery and edition of lost or unknown texts of classical antiquity. These include, notably, two treatises of Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, which he published in a critical edition in 1954. Among the papers in his considerable Nachlaß are transcriptions of three Greek texts attributed to a Pseudo-Aristotle, which is to say an author, likely of late antiquity, writing in a consciously Aristotelian style, or even in imitation of the Stagirite with intent to deceive readers. These are entitled On Napping, On Foam, and On Beans and Pulses.

A fourth text, archived along with these others at the Houghton Library at Harvard University, is found only in German translation, written out in Jaeger’s own hand, and is attributed, puzzlingly, to a “Pseudo-Pseudo-Aristotle”. Some scholarly debate over the past decades has been focused on the question whether this curiously monikered author was pretending (the common interpretation among French and Italian scholars) to be someone pretending to be Aristotle  —l’imitation d’une imitation, as Grillet (2003) wrote, evidently riffing on Plato’s dismissive characterisation of figurative art–; or whether (as Germans and Anglophones generally believe) the “Pseudo-Pseudo-” may be read as a double negation, so that the author was in antiquity falsely believed to be falsely believed to be Aristotle, which would be so much as to say, in other words, that he was Aristotle. The title of the text in question is On Attention.

We cannot resolve the question of authorship here, nor can we determine under what circumstances Jaeger acquired the text, nor what happened to the Greek original, nor indeed, with any certainty, whether there ever was one. We shall, nevertheless, here below (scroll over the bust), provide a translation of the German manuscript, supplementing it only sparingly with footnotes, where the text plainly requires interpretation, or where it evidently alludes to other parts of the Aristotelian corpus.

The “Velocispector” and the Sturgis Sorosis

In the course of a recent re-cataloguing of W-Cache materials improperly translated with the Milcom Papers during the Mana Library Installation, two members of the Trustees took note of the leaf depicted above, which represents a modification of a Sheffield “Light Car” known as the “Flyer.”  The original Flyer was developed by the Sheffield Co. of Three Rivers, Michigan in the early 1890s, though this unusual model (unlike many other Sheffield specialized railway hand cars) appears never to have gone into wide production.  It is nevertheless described in some detail, and accompanied by a print much like this one, in the trade gazetteer The Sheffield Car Co. (1894). While obviously somewhat impractical, the Flyer was reported to achieve speeds of thirty miles an hour downwind in a stiff breeze, and thus offered a nearly unprecedented somatosensory experience for late-nineteenth century thrill-seekers.

What makes this (previously unknown) W-Cache etching unique is the addition, visible in the reproduction, of a kind of easel or “display board” cantilevered out from the mast, and configured to be optimally visible to the passenger of the vehicle.

While we were initially puzzled by this peculiar adaptation, we are now in a position to offer a preliminary interpretation, one of considerable interest to those who delve the history of aesthetic experience generally (and the Avis Tertia specifically). The full story is sufficiently intricate and important that we trust it will eventually merit treatment in an article-length study in the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), but in keeping with the mission of Communiqués, we believe a concise summary of our findings is in order.  In brief, then:

1) The W-Cache contains sources that indicate that this modified Flyer was  indeed developed as a kind of private and secret “skunk-works” project by principals of the Sheffield Car Company in the early 1890s.

2) These sources further establish that the vehicle was known as the “Velocispector,” and that the purpose of the cantilevered easel was to permit experimentation with practices of sustained attention to works of art while travelling at high speeds.

3) Which is to say, the Velocispector allowed an intrepid aesthete to mount a painting, drawing, photograph, or other work of two-dimensional art of conventional size to the angled mast-board and then regard it intently as both viewer and viewed accelerated to great speed along an (unused) rail line.

4) These same sources strongly suggest that this “extreme-sport” of art-appreciation emerged out of a secretive cohort of attentional devotees active in St. Joseph’s County, Michigan at the turn of the century.

5) It is difficult to believe that these persons were not associated with a community that we would now recognize as a volée of the Order of the Third Bird — a volée experimenting not merely with the aesthetic vertigo of railway travel generally, but with specific problems of high-velocity contemplation.

6) Research to this point strongly suggests that the following individuals knew of and/or participated in this work: Edward B. Linsley and Warren J. Willits of Three Rivers, Michigan (both principals of the Sheffield Car Company, and both also philanthropic founders of the Three Rivers Public Library, later the Carnegie Center for the Arts); Evelyn B. Gray and Rose Van Burin (of the Sturgis Sorosis Club, Sturgis, Michigan, which appears to have been the nexus of the community as a whole); and Sue I. Silliman (of the Three Rivers Isabella Association).

7) At least one series of these Protocols of Locomotion (also known as Actions of the Wind) was conducted on a set of Adolphe Braun’s photographs of the Sistine Chapel, then on loan from the State Public Library.

More work is wanted, but a full treatment may be expected within the year.

Dominican Metempsychosis?

An associate of ESTAR(SER) residing in Belgium recently passed us the following short notice, which we reproduce here:

“In the course of a perusal of A.G. Sertillanges’ well known La vie intellectuelle (I was working with the edition of 1921), I found myself quite arrested by several turns of phrase in chapter 6, ‘L’esprit du travail.’  I take the liberty of including an image. It will be remarked that Father Sertillanges here suggests that ‘comprendre c’est de devenir autre’ (‘to understand is to become other’) and that this is achieved by means of an uncanny effort: ‘Essayez de penser dans l’objet de la science, non en vous-même,’ which we would render as ‘endeavor to think inside the object to be understood, and not in yourself’  (this movement of thought into the thing is likened to speaking out into the air, rather than up into one’s own sinuses). Nebbel’s 1973 essay on “Birds in Cassocks” (Proceedings, second series, Volume II, no. 3, pp. 11-28) does discuss a number of Jesuits and Franciscans working in Francophone Europe (and the colonies) in the first decades of the twentieth century who are strongly suspected of Birdish associations, but I was unaware of any links to the Dominican order. In light of Sertillanges’ striking phraseology here, a closer look would be, I think, warranted.”

We agree. Anyone with further leads is encouraged to follow up.

Something Unexpected

Quite aside from the difficulties and mysteries encountered above (in “Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds” and “The Absence of the Third Bird at Nikkō”), we would also like to share a diverting image that arrived over the transom from a correspondent who provides only a “bird name,” as traditionally adopted by associates of the Order of the Third Bird. The caption scribbled on the reverse of this photograph, taken in apparent haste, is as follows: “Workroom and headquarters, Secretary Locotenant of the Order of the Third Bird.” Many of our readers are in proud or bemused possession of one of the many contradictory and fragmentary images of the Locotenant currently in circulation. The present photograph is unusual in that it does not purport to feature the Secretary him- or herself, and also appears to be quite contemporary.

Supplement: The Absence of the Third Bird at Nikkō

While we were in the process of composing the preceding entry (“Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds”) we had occasion to consult with a correspondent presently located in Nikkō, Japan. She had become interested in the recurrent bird imagery on the third ring of walls surrounding Nikkō’s Tōshōgu temple complex, which enshrines the founding father of the Tokugawa shogunate.

The decorations on this ring of walls are composed of colorful vignettes of two birds or three, of a variety of species, possibly bearing some symbolism but on the whole – in line with the rest of the Tōshōgu complex – existing to display ornate artistry and opulence, and implicitly questioning the extent to which it is possible to torque, torture and exalt matter to proclaim, reflect and supplement the glory of a given being.

Our correspondent highlights two adjacent and very curious vignettes (reproduced here as photographed by her). The first features three ducks, one of which has slipped underwater – a common enough motif that might easily evoke to Birdish sensibilities a propensity to dip below the surface of things in pursuit of some elusive aesthesis.

In the second, the two birds that were on the water’s surface are now in flight, and the third is nowhere to be seen. This third is betrayed only by the roiling of the water, and by the gap where it should be, and is not.

The pursuit of meaning here, if meaning is to be pursued, must be something like following along the length of a single filament of spider silk – invisible to the naked eye and almost impalpable, though surprisingly robust.

As the poet Kakiaji no Seiei famously observed, if only one thread in a bolt of white cloth is blue, anyone might, upon close observation, discern it – but only a poet sees that the cloth yearns to be blue.

The craftsman of these bird vignettes at Tōshōgu – if indeed he was a conscientious adept of an Order resembling that of the present day (in Japan or elsewhere) in its sensibilities and purposes – would have been certain, here, to disguise his profession of faith and fealty as a mere absence. In so doing, he made this absence an unmistakable emblem of the very thing he had so carefully omitted.

For the third bird is in fact not there. In order to pursue it and reveal its presence, one would have literally to dive below the surface of this image, or below the surface of the matter that composes this work – which of course, save for the very particular circumstances of an Action of the Order, is quite impossible.

Sanchōden: The Transmission of the Three Birds

The origins of the Order of the Third Bird as we know it today – a self-aware organization capable of transplanting itself internationally, like the manifesto-driven cultural movements of centuries past ­– are increasingly well-established in their late 18th-century European milieu. Aside from the fact that such facts, once established, become the bulwarks of an establishment and must be contested as such, nothing of this precludes, or has precluded, the convergent evolution of like-minded groups in other places, at other historical cusps, bearing other names and often wearing strange plumage.

Even so, it is startling when these convergent “species” of group-oriented aesthetes, having evolved to occupy a very particular niche in a society that comprises humans and works of art, evince a historical continuity or channel of influence where none could factually exist. The question of whether, given such evidence, we must revise our carefully constructed histories, or understandings of history, or simply chalk it all up to coincidence, can only be in the background in this short account, silent though not inert.

From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

On several occasions, groups of associates of the Order of the Third Bird traveling in the Kanto region of Japan and particularly in Tokyo have occasionally come upon what appear to be volées of Birds carrying out a Protocol of sustained attention before a work of art. When questioned – for what little good this did – they did not appear to have pledged comradeship to any other group or individual, of the Order or otherwise, or even to be aware of the latter’s existence. They wore green cotton tunics or baggy green trousers instead of the saffron-colored strips or bands so frequently seen among contemporary Birds; their “practice” appeared to consist of two or more phases, separated by a loud clap in unison, as one does in a Buddhist or Shinto temple.

What is most extraordinary, and most difficult to explain, is that they refer to themselves as members of a group called “Sanchōdōkai,” which can be roughly translated as “the order of the path of [the] three birds”; they dress in green as a kind of visual pun, since the Japanese word for “green” resembles one reading of the Chinese-derived characters for “three birds.” An individual cell of the group is called a wa, after the Chinese character meaning “wing,” which is also a counter-word used for counting birds. Requirements for membership in these groups are strict, including guidelines for personal appearance and private routine, and every new member receives a suite of “secret teachings” from a group elder, complete with ceremony and song.

From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

What has not been fully understood until very recently – in research forthcoming in the Proceedings and generously previewed with us here – are the details of what this Japanese “Order” perceives to be its genealogy. Here, some troubling matters are clarified, though others are obscured. Consider the fact, first of all, that the three most common noms de plume chosen by members (a practice similar to that of Western members of the Order) are yobukodori (literally, “calling bird”) inaōsedori (literally, “rice-bearing bird”) and momochidori (perhaps a bush warbler, though the word largely means “a multitude of birds”). These are the names of birds that appear in the Kokinshū, the great Heian-period anthology of waka poetry that set a standard for the poets of generations to come. Translators of the Kokinshū, from the earliest days to the present, have faced thorny challenges in decoding these names.

At least part of the problem for contemporary translators is the poems’ use of kakekotoba, rhetorical devices that use homophony to compress multiple layers of meaning into a single word, from which the meaning of the rest of the poem is made to suspend. For an illustration, consider these two alternative translations of a poem featuring the yobukodori, or “calling-bird”:

“Now far, now near, there / in the mountains, a songbird / warbles his tune / tentatively, will she ever / hear these love notes on the wind” (Rodd & Henkenius, 1996)

“Deep in the mountains, where I have lost my bearings / A cuckoo calls faintly.” (Shively, 1953)

Lost our bearings, indeed. For aside from the additional layers of meaning, exactly what sort of bird are we dealing with here? No one, except perhaps the original poet, has ever been sure. The identity of this bird, and of the two others, ­has remained a matter of debate and perplexity more or less since the poem was composed. Were they invented by the poet[s]? Were they local names for well-known species, now lost? Or perhaps, did they hide secret meanings? These three birds of the Kokinshū yobukodori, inaōsedori, and momochidori ­– are so famously mysterious, in fact, that they have a collective name, Kokin no Sanchō (“the three birds of the Kokinshū”), and much ink has been spilled at their little feet. Commentators at work on other exegetical riddles, throwing up their hands, would commonly say that the mystery was “as deep as that of the three birds of the Kokinshū.”

From Kitagawa Utamaro, The Bird Book (collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Mysteries and esoteric meanings were part and parcel of waka poetry both as practice and as institution. Scrolls containing “secret teachings” pertaining to the composition and interpretation of poetry were passed down the generations from poet-master to poet-disciple. An aspiring poet would receive, in utmost discretion and highest ceremony, a kokin denjū, or “transmission of the secret teachings of the Kokinshū,” a section of which was specifically devoted to the “transmission of the three birds,” or Sanchōden ­– a revelation, varying greatly from master to master and lineage to lineage according to inclination, learning, and zeal, of the true identity and complex symbolism of the birds.

In fact, what we increasingly find, among the waka disciples and waka masters, is something of a secret society of adepts founded on an increasingly exuberant weaving and reweaving of esoteric mystery around what was originally no more than the difficult attribution of certain nouns in old  texts, a tissue of willful misreading and mis-erudition, of rambling associations drawn from botany, astrology, and Chinese philosophy, of spontaneous fictions taken up and closely examined as if they were the holiest writ.

As it happens, the contemporary Japanese practitioners of the “way of three birds” – to be distinguished from the “way of the third bird,” since evidently they borrow their birds from the waka “secret teachings” tradition of the three birds and not from the Ausonian parable more familiar to our readers – have willfully derived not only the terminology and the ritual solemnity of this tradition, but the spirit of hermeneutical folly that animates it.

Portrait of the poet and poetic compiler Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241), patriarch of more than one waka-poet lineage.

But how and why, exactly, did they arrive at the point of conducting collective rituals of what is unmistakably sustained attention to works of art, from national treasures to foreign imports to casual civic works?

Our researchers are presently in possession of a scroll that most recently belonged to a member of one of the great waka families, not previously catalogued, and which firmly belongs to the tradition of delirious exegeses of “secret teachings” so disparaged by those, like the Edo-period scholar Motoori Norinaga, who later (in the words of former University of Tokyo professor Basil Hall Chamberlain) “brought the light of true philological criticism to bear on the texts in question.” Here, the three birds of the Kokinshū are made, remarkably, to correspond to three phases of a sketchily-described ritual action.

Before we draw any hasty conclusions and do as many of our colleagues delight in doing, finding here yet another protocol to add to our catalog, we must note that any individuals making practical use of this late Muromachi-period document must surely have pursued purposes palpably foreign (if congruent) to those of the Order. However – and here is where further work is urgently needed – it is also the case that many of the contemporary Japanese “three birds” groups use a ritual protocol which is quite like this one; similar enough that there must have been access to a copy of this rare text, or that its contents must have been otherwise transmitted to these practitioners. For certainly in this case at least, we cannot speak of coincidence.

The first “phase” of ritual in question, as practiced in the present day, is one of calling, and is its language recalls the Heian-period waka that first inaugurated the mystery of the three birds. One is to imagine oneself completely lost in the depths of the mountains, in an autumn twilight. One hears a high, lonely note from an unknown direction; one is called. In the second phase, also based on a single Kokinshū poem, and called a “winter” phase, one stands at one’s own gate (not lost, this time at home), listening for a sound or signal that comes from far away. The third phase – the precise details of which are closely guarded, for the time being, by those most closely involved – is called a phase of “multitude,” and is associated with the arrival of spring.

The Ornithologists

Notes on A Walk Through H

Returning readers of this blog will note that we have had previous dealings with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, to wit, with his 1980 film The Falls (see the entry “The Gulls,” below). The numerous links between his source material for this documentary, his informants, and the Order of the Third Bird surprised none; but in their very profusion they obscured the equally fascinating case of Greenaway’s documentary film of two years prior, A Walk Through H: The Reincarnation of an Ornithologist.

Still from film: route through the city of Contorpis

A Walk Through H is a film that concerns – a film, rather, that fixedly regards – “pictures.” Aside from the initial and closing scenes – where the camera tracks along a corridor toward or away from a room containing framed works – the film never lifts its head or its eyes from the images that so deeply and sinuously preoccupy it. The images themselves greatly vary. At the beginning of the film’s journey, for the most part, they purport to show cities, buildings, and rooms; a red thread traverses these spaces, representing a route to be taken through them, and transforming them into maps.

Crucially, these are routes that have actually been taken through these spaces by the narrator of the film. It is both unstated and beside the point whether he is, in effect, mentally tracing these routes while gazing at the images; whether he carries the pictures on his person and lets them alter his inner experience of a physical landscape he is crossing; or whether indeed he literally enters the pictures in question. It is well known that practitioners of the Order of the Third Bird can have difficulty making such fine distinctions.

Still from film: route through the city of Dormis

What makes this question somewhat more difficult is the fact that it is often the very act of traversing a space, whether in thought or deed, that makes it traversable – a principle that holds even as cities lose their names, rooms lose their walls, and even the yellow (or red) brick road loses its definition.

Still from film

Treating works of art as maps – or simply as enterable things, like windows or doors, or plots of ground to be walked and explored, is not unheard of, particularly for the adepts of the Order. A large collection of documentation within the W-Cache, for example, has to do with musings on and results of such activity, the greatest portion of which is attributable to the secretive, fiercely insular volée of Birds located in the windswept old coastal town of Ipswich in northeastern Massachusetts in the mid-twentieth century. The collection mostly consists of original and reproduction images of houses with large numbers of windows, in a multitude of styles, and includes at least one of the framed works treated in A Journey Through H (see below), which the group conspired to obtain in the early 80s. The group is said to have specialized in a “protocol” of sustained attention inspired by mystical traditions dating ultimately to the first-century Talmudic academies of Asoristan (in Sasanian Mesopotamia), in which a house or palace with many rooms, wings, and floors is traversed in the mind.

Still from film (original acquired by Ipswich MA volée of the Order of the Third Bird in 1982)

It is but a short step, of course, to treating any image – not just architectural images – as houses with many rooms, and this is in fact what occurs with Greenaway’s narrator-traveler as he progresses. Many other Birds, believing that focused attention can best be described as a kind of controlled wandering, an orbit – sometimes wild and electron-like – around a given thing, instead of a discipline nakedly forced upon a single point, have used congruent or convergent techniques. The Greenaway film alludes to these currents of Bird practice via the device of having each “picture” or map, once used, gradually fade and be replaced by an odd symbol that resembles “a signpost or the skeleton of a windmill.”

Another line in the film’s voiceover alludes to an equally important ongoing debate in the Order. “Were other travelers,” asks the narrator, in Colin Cantlie’s brisk voice, “obliged to travel through the same country?” Perhaps, he continues, “it was not impossible that other travelers had different maps of this territory, simpler and more straightforward maps.”

Still from film

Works of art, of course, accommodate as many journeys as there are journeyers, even though details of these journeys often uncannily coincide. In fact, there exist theories that the work of art is a single, unchanging locus, but so richly endowed with potential configurations and trajectories of experience that it may as well be a different thing, in a different place, for every person who encounters it (this is not the same as saying that the work of art is redefined by every new encounter with it.) There are also theories, it must be mentioned, according to which all existing works of art are partial maps of the terrain of a single alternative universe, over the surface of which Birds endlessly travel, leaving their minute, whorled, flocking trails with every collective Action of sustained attention.

Still from film

It takes very little to see that Greenaway’s film hints quite heavily in the direction of the Order. This raises a question, however – a question also raised by The Falls of 1980 – of what the great filmmaker stood to gain or to say from working the Order into this document of a singular journey.

One clue lies in the fact that many of the purported “maps” for this journey are layered over or cut with images of birds in flight.  In some of these images, birds fly against the background of the tangled branches of winter trees, which resemble the tangled paths of the maps; their winged bodies form abstract ciphers that often strikingly resemble the “windmills” mentioned above.











It must be stated that there are two kinds of “windmill” in A Walk Through H. There are, first of all, the windmills that replace the maps once they inevitably fade, after use (below, left); then there are the shapes that increasingly, troublingly proliferate upon the maps as the film progresses, functioning both as guides and as obstacles (below, left).







Though Greenaway in no way directly indicates that the windmills are birds (indeed, the reader might object that windmills are often quite hazardous to birds), the insinuations in this direction are forcefully underlined toward the end of the film, where a book by the great traveler and ornithologist Tulse Luper, titled Birds of the Northern Hemisphere, makes its appearance. Here the comparison, as it were, flies in the face like birds flushed from the bush.

If these windmills, of both kinds – implacable, silent, inscrutable – are indeed birds, a number of questions arise. Why, really, do the maps, once used, fade to be replaced by birds? Does this represent an intervention in debates about the nature of attention, as suggested above, or some kind of comforting affirmation, or strict prohibition, or instead something more sinister? Why do these sigils so contagiously proliferate as the film nears its ambiguous denouement? Why would images of birds be so insistently used to counterpose freedom and unfreedom, passageways and barriers, the joy of flight and the despair of those lost in a maze? Greenaway’s troubled, ambivalent relationship with the Order, at the very least, is in full evidence here.

Further mysteries linger. One of the images displayed in the film bears the figure “83/2100.” It just so happens that the W-Cache contains, in one of its ubiquitous file boxes – labeled “Telegnomy,” for reasons as yet unexamined by our researchers – a sequence of 2100 images, in varying sizes and media, bearing seemingly unrelated content. From this sequence, a single image is missing: number 83. The question of whether the formation of this W-Cache collection predates the filming of A Walk Through H would thus be of the greatest possible significance with regard both to Greenaway’s history with the Order and to the history of the Order itself.

Though perhaps here we are making a mountain out of a mere numerical coincidence – a human error among the many to which we cannot be considered immune – it is certainly no coincidence that an image of one of the “cities” in the film, called Antilipe (supposedly located in Syria), quite clearly shows an Action of the Order taking place.

Still from film: an Action of the Order of the Third Bird taking place in the “city” of Antilipe (Syria).
Note the four Birds at center and the two bird-sigils at bottom left and right.

What manner of Protocol, what esoteric lineage of practice, might this strange image reveal? Did Peter Greenaway, at some point in his life, encounter the fabled Syrian Order of Birds (now familiar to our readers from a number of recent and groundbreaking ESTAR(SER) publications) – and find himself transformed by this encounter? Was his life altered by an experience that was both as sharply defined and as nameless and fleeting as – to use the film’s words – “a path made across the grass by the shadow of flying birds”?

From Which the Bridle-less Birds Fled …

A note to the reader: The following report from the associate of the Order of the Third Bird known as Kingfisher has been translated from its original French. The letter of September 1870 quoted therein, first found in the W-Cache in January 2014, has been the subject of much controversy and excitement; it was accompanied by a number of other materials, including a fragment of a typewritten document apparently averring the letter’s authenticity, and signed “1713”; a scrap of paper on which a closely coiled spiral is drawn in black ink; and a length of purple silk rolled into a cylinder, containing a quantity of fine sand.


The First Seer: A Second Look at a Poet’s Sojourn in the Prison of Mazas

On August 29, 1870, Arthur Rimbaud slipped the surveillance of his mother and embarked upon a fugue that led him to Paris. The escapade was of short duration, since he was caught without a ticket at the Gare du Nord. At the dawn of the Third Republic and in the tense climate that preceded the Commune, the young man was carried off to the remand house at Mazas. The archives of the prison, which was known for having welcomed certain famous lodgers, permit us to know something further of the conditions of detention of the young poet. The statement of the facts of the case drawn up on August 31 contains little information, and one might easily believe that Arthur Rimbaud resided alone, in cell 42, until the fourth of September, the day of his liberation after the payment of bail by Georges Izambard, his French teacher.

However, in cross-referencing the documents that have been conserved, one perceives that a second young man occupied cell 42 before the arrival of the runaway, and remained there somewhat longer than the latter:

July 13, 1870, Paris, rue Daumesnil

According to the declarations of the officer of the police Jean Crétut, who was off duty, and according to the testimony of Monsieurs Isidore Lelous and Jacques Gravin and in the absence of explanation by Louis Hurtière, who had kept his silence during and after his arrest at the gate of the residence of M. Lelous, before which he had remained immobile for two entire days, it was declared that the aforementioned Louis Hurtière recognized himself to be tacitly guilty of harassment of respectable women of said house and of a premeditated attempt to steal wrought iron components of the gate of the plaintiff’s domicile, which represent entwined lions. Inasmuch as the accused did not wish to remove himself from the domicile of M. Lelous, placing in danger the wife, daughters, housemaid, and above all the reputation of the household, he was placed in preventive custody.   Mtr. N°3809, L.H, 13-07-1870. Cellule n°42.


No other information is accessible concerning this mysterious supposed comrade of Rimbaud’s in the cell, save a prison doctor’s report signaling “long periods of obsessional attention to objects without interest,” which give him reason to fear “the possibility of mental crises and a gradual sliding into madness,” though he had not yet noted any worsening of the prisoner’s condition.

A second, very concise report notes that “the prisoner Louis Hurtière holds himself almost immobile, occasionally moving by a step, fixing with his gaze, without any apparent signs of discomfort, varied objects including a fork, a safety pin forgotten on the corridor floor, or even a bird etched in simple curves on the wall of the cell by a previous prisoner.”

Who was Louis Hurtière? What did his curious attentional behaviors conceal? Did he have any communication with Arthur Rimbaud? What is certain is that the contemplative attitude of this inmate was enough to prompt new and careful research in the W-Cache, which contains the archives of the Order of the Third Bird; the practices of its members can be linked to what we know of the behavior of this individual locked up for having let his attention be arrested by a confection of wrought iron.

During these researches, a letter drew quite a bit of attention on the part of the W-Cache archivists. This anonymous letter was addressed to M. Georges Izambard, Arthur Rimbaud’s French teacher, and despite a lack of signature might easily be a personal letter from his student. The handwriting does not resemble that of the young boy; it is not comparable to the elegant penmanship of his first so-called “lettre du voyant.” But perhaps Rimbaud dictated this letter to a fellow student? And what if what we have here is actually the first “visionary letter,” before the well-known one written some months after its author’s release?


Paris, September 3, 1870

 Cher Monsieur,

 Haven’t you ever felt the need to perseverantly observe a worldly object, to the point that its lineaments seem to you renewed and remade? Have you never felt a kind of mystic obsession for what remains hidden to the eye of the ordinary? No, surely not. Your habits oblige and blind you. Do you not agree? You know my present circumstance. It causes me no suffering. It has allowed me to visit a hidden cleft in the world, a darkling fold, where I met the only true poet I have seen in this world. I did not meet him astroll in the full light of day; it is in the darkness of a cell that I find him, one from which we have already escaped. In thought, Monsieur! Thought, which you deem so powerful, but which in you is a bird that, having hurled itself endlessly at the pitiless bars of its cage, has finally ceased to struggle, and awaits its end, its wings immobile upon the straw. Your modest magician’s talents cannot produce the dark radiance of the spells I learned that day. Yes, I tell you, I have been initiated into forms of magic whose perfumes have enchanted me for ever. May you one day know such mighty effluvia as these. If you hope ever to meet a poet of the shadows, I pray you to show the same indulgence as you once did for my person and my knaveries. You have supported me; you know my defiances and follies; double, I pray you, the grace that you have shown me, and let its blind hand guide my new friend to freedom. If I do not reveal to you the ritual hours given to bring our souls to an alchemical boil, I can deliver to you the vivid result. Imagine before your eyes a safety pin – so simple, this bit of twisted iron that discreetly reflects the little light that reaches us here – then let your mind little by little unfold itself, this fine linen which I will not thus have failed to dishevel.

 Flower-moire, crocodile-phosphor, subterranean-blue, eye-saw, void-tatooed, brick-cell, scarab-constellation, tooth-mirror, bosphorus-needle, skeleton-ball, crab-gloaming, Atlas-cinders, Vein-goddess, flute-ear, langour-skein, grass-silk, territory-spindle, note-alembic, caterpillar-sluice, circle-sword, iris-architect, boat-thread, comet-loop, plait-ant, mosquito-lace, victory-mien, ruin-tortoise, landscape-atom, mask-cage, horn-firefly, lantern-hollow, prism-rust, lighthouse-bird, song-pricked, chain-orange, nail-waterlilly, aileron-island, wrinkle-hatched

Numerous clues in this letter leave us to imagine that this Louis Hurtière, still unknown to us, was most likely a Bird of the Order; and it seems that his encounter with Rimbaud was exceedingly inspirational for this “thief of fire.” Knowing his amazing precociousness, it is not impossible that a part of his genius was born of an initiation into the attentional practices of the Birds, and then channeled into the creation of the poem at the end of his letter. Though some doubts remain with respect to the authenticity of the document, it is a matter only of further pursuing research toward a better understanding of the links forged between Arthur Rimbaud and Louis Hurtière.